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pacificLIGHT photography

A Very Useful App

As a photographer, the position of the sun (or the moon) at different times of the day is something that concerns you. Knowing when and from which direction either will rise or set, is important information particularly if you shoot landscapes. You can certainly check the local newspaper or google sunrise and set times for your location. But how about having this information at your finger-tips for your exact location, anywhere in the world? How about being able to predict exactly where the sun or moon will rise or set on any given day in relation to a particular foreground subject? How about being able to search for exact time when the sun or moon will be in a particular position in the sky?

I carry this information in my pocket, everywhere I go, in the form of an incredibly useful app for iOS (also Android) called “The Photographer’s Ephemeris”. It’s available for about $12 from the iTunes store. If you shoot landscapes, this could well be the best 12 bucks you spend all year.

The basic functions are easy to master: sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times and directions are all pretty straightforward. More advanced functions such as searching for the specific sun/moon positions might require a glance through the online documentation, but that’s not really difficult either. Over the years, additional functionality has been added to the program: there is now a night mode which can be used to predict the rise time and position of the Milky Way and Galactic Center if you are so inclined. There are other applications available with more extensive functionality, but “TPE” and its intuitive interface is my go-to app to answer these basic questions.

Have a look at the screen capture below: it’s set for the time and place of the image above (a few miles from my home). The yellow line on the right shows the direction from which the Sun will rise, while the thin blue line shows the current direction to the Moon.

The band below the map indicated the times for various daily events of interest to photographers: sunrise/sunset, moonrise/moonset, the start and end of Civil twilight (the time for all those amazing blue hour shots), as well as the end of, and beginning of Astronomical twilight (between these times the sky will be dark enough for those amazing star-trail and Milky Way shots). Finally, the box below this band shows the current time (7:10am) and indicates the current direction and altitude of the moon and sun (the sun is just below the horizon, the moon ~6 degrees above).

Using the built-in compass in my iPhone ahead of time gave me the general compass direction of the mountain peak in the distance, and using TPE to search for a time just before sunrise when the moon would be high enough in the sky, in the appropriate direction to complete the image I had in my mind gave me several days when these conditions would be met. Now all I had to do was show up and hope for clear skies… not all that common in Vancouver during the winter! On this day however, the stars aligned and I was treated to one of the most spectacular pre-dawn displays I have ever seen from this location.

A side-note: If you want to include a crescent moon in your pre-dawn/sunrise images, start looking for this a day or two ahead of the new moon. A few days later, you should be able to catch a crescent moon hanging above the western horizon in a cobalt blue sky, some time after the sun has set. The rise and set directions for the moon vary greatly over the course of each month; much more so than the sun on it’s annual trek. So, while the newspaper may be able to tell you when the moon will rise or set, you will need TPE to tell you where it will rise and set each day. There is also a free web app version if you would like to give it a try before buying, just go to photoephemeris.com.

Only Good Light

Don’t shoot during the noon day hours on a sunny day! This is a rule we are told over and over: shoot only during the golden light of early morning and late afternoon. While this is generally good advice and can provide wonderful to light to shape and reveal texture and form, the opposite statement, to never shoot during the noonday hours is unnecessarily limiting. 

Photographer and author David DuChemin, wrote, “there is no such thing as ‘bad’ light, only light that works with or against your intent for [an] image.”  Flipping this thought around, bemoaning the light because it doesn’t match your intentions at the moment can mean missing opportunities that may be right in front of you.

After enduring several cloudy days while scouting for my 2017 photo-workshop in Tuscany, we finally woke to clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine.   And, while I spent those cloudy days exploring the charming villages of the Val d’Orcia, I was determined to find some new locations for the incredible landscapes in the area, so we headed out for a day exploring the country-side.  I found the image above driving along the road near San Quirico just before we stopped for lunch.  In a way, it was fortunate that I came upon this image at this time of day… a time of day when traditional wisdom said I should just leave the camera in my bag.  This particular image could not have been created at any other time of day; the sun was high in the sky by this time rendering the cypress trees and the curved ridge of the hillside in silhouette, clearly revealing their form.  The sharply angled sun created what amounted to side-light on the red clay of the Crete Senesi, perfect for revealing the texture and colour of the newly tilled clay on the steep side of the hill.   The red colour was important to reveal since it provides a complement to the deep blues of the sky, and the texture of the red clay is a nice counter point to the softness of the white cloud.

The moral to this short tale is that there are lots of opportunities to create images at any time of the day, in any kind of weather: it just takes opening our minds to the possibilities and letting go of our preconceived notions of what we see and how we should shoot it.

Removing Labels and Arranging Shapes

There are lots of "rules" to think about when composing an image. At its simplest, effective composition is mostly about arranging shapes.  When you are thinking about a composition in front of your camera, it helps to remove the labels and view the scene in terms of just those shapes: the "shapes" that make up an image are the elements of visual design: line, shape, form, texture, pattern and colour. Looked at this way, even a simple pastoral scene of cattle grazing in a field becomes an exercise in those elements.  of line and shape, of pattern and repetition, and of balance using visual weight.

Tree trunks become a repeated pattern of lines, the curve of a hillside is repeated in the arrangement of animals along the hillside and in the curve of the fence which must also follow the curve of the hill. A group of trees, leafed out in early spring foliage becomes a subtle texture composed of different shades of green. The loan animal off to itself on the lower left, since it contrasts sharply with the surrounding grass, becomes a strong draw for the viewer’s eye. Elements that draw a viewer’s eye in this way are said to possess significant “visual weight”, and in this scene the animal on the left as sufficient visual weight to help balance a composition that would be otherwise be weighted more to the right. Aside from just helping to balance the composition, the lone cow also momentarily pulls the viewer's eye way from the other areas of visual interest in the scene, causing the viewer's eye to move continuously through the composition.  Creating movement in an image amplifies visual interest, and helps holds a viewer's interest longer

Effective composition is easier when we learn to let go of simply what a thing is, and concentrate on the shapes that make up our images.

Fun with Texture Overlays

Texture overlays are a great way to add additional depth and dimension to your images. It’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t work with every image. The technique though, has been around long before Photoshop: in the past you might have sandwiched two transparencies (or two negatives) together and printed them as a single image.

What's a texture overlay?
It’s simply an image of some surface with an interesting texture, pattern or colour. In digital terms you add it as an additional layer in your editing program. You can buy packages of texture images from many sources on the internet, or create your own: weathered wood, peeling paint, fabrics such as canvas or burlap, worn leather, carpet, the pattern of burned on grease a well-used roasting pan… the possibilities are endless. A texture overlay cannot be counted on to turn a weak image into a gallery piece, but it can sometimes rescue an image that isn’t quit there, making it into something more interesting.

The Brush and the Grad

Taming Lightroom’s Local Adjustment Tools

Lightroom has several local adjustment tools you can use to work on specific areas in your images, including the Adjustment Brush and the Graduated filter. Both have been criticized for been somewhat blunt instruments: lacking the precision of carefully masked adjustment layers in Photoshop. While it’s true that Photoshop offers the possibility of creating very precise local adjustments, it’s unfair to unduly criticize Lightroom’s local adjustment tools: they are more capable than some would have you believe.

Photographing the Aurora Borealis

The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is an awesome sight to behold. If you live in the northern reaches of the globe, or even if you are in areas as far south as the northern tier of US states or anywhere in Canada or northern Europe, chances are good that the Aurora will visible to you at some time this winter.

The Trouble with Wide-Angles

As a group, wide-angle lenses are seemingly the hardest for beginning photographers to master. Why is that? Well, for two reasons actually, both tied to their wide field of view.

Slow Down and Keep Shooting

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while you could miss it.
Ferris Bueller

Life does seem to move faster and faster with each passing year. The pace just never seems to slow down; deadlines at work, soccer practice and dance lessons for the kids, lawns to cut, and a hundred other tasks that all demand our attention, right now!

Overcoming Inertia

How often have you walked or driven by something that caught your eye, and immediately began an inner debate: should I stop and shoot that? Is worth the effort? And having NOT stopped, how often have you later kicked yourself for your decision?

Passion and Work

Is passion necessary to create great images? If you are not passionate about your subject, is it possible to create images that others will find interesting, let alone inspiring? To quote Jay Maisel, “If you’re not excited about your images, how can you expect me to be excited about them?” It’s hard to argue against this idea, (and yet commercial photographers are called upon to do this everyday; against deadlines, and within ever shrinking budgets.) So, if you aren’t feeling particularly passionate about shooting on a given day is there any point to picking up your camera at all? Given the basic premise here, you’re only going to create uninspired, boring images, aren’t you? Is there any point to working at photography simply for the sake of working at it?